India accounts for 17% of all maternal deaths in the world. The country’s maternal mortality ratio was 167 per 100,000 live births in 2013. This means an estimated 44,000 women die during pregnancy and childbirth in India every year. That’s 120 maternal deaths every day.
The country’s record on infant mortality is equally dismal: 40 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2013. Every year, more than one million children die before they complete their first year.
The main cause of high maternal mortality is poor nutrition, compounded by inadequate care during pregnancy. Many women are unable to afford leave before and after childbirth.
In 2010, the government launched the Indira Gandhi Matritva Sahyog Yojana, which gave a modest allowance of Rs 4,000 to pregnant and lactating mothers in 53 districts.
The National Food Security Act, which was passed in July 2013, provided a universal maternity benefit of Rs 6,000. Three years later, the maternity benefit under the Act is yet to be implemented.
On Monday, November 21, a day ahead of public meetings organised by the Right to Food campaign across India, more than 60 academics and activists wrote a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi urging him to implement the maternity benefit under the National Food Security Act.
“The nation is paying a heavy price for this violation of the Act,” the letter said. “Maternity entitlements are essential to address India’s staggering problem of low birth weights, poor maternal health and severe hardship during pregnancy.”
The letter was signed by members of the National Alliance for Maternal Health and Human Rights, Alliance for Right to Early Child Development, Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, Right to Food campaign, among others.
Shri Narendra Modi
Prime Minister of India
Dear Prime Minister,
We are writing to draw your attention to the continued denial of women’s rights to maternity entitlements under the National Food Security Act 2013 (NFSA) and beyond.
Section 4(b) of the NFSA provides for maternity entitlements of Rs 6,000 for all pregnant women (except regular public sector employees, who currently have more substantial entitlements in keeping with global norms). This is one of the most important provisions of the Act. However, the Central Government has completely ignored it. The law has been grossly violated for more than three years, without any justification whatsoever.
Questioned by the Supreme Court on this, the Ministry of Women and Child Development filed a very misleading affidavit on 30 October 2015, claiming that it was planning to extend the Indira Gandhi Matritva Sahyog Yojana (IGMSY) from 53 “pilot districts” to 200 districts in 2015-6 and to all districts in 2016-7. Contrary to this claim, the budget allocation for IGMSY in the 2016-7 Union Budget remains a measly Rs 400 crore (as in 2015-16 and 2014-15), making it impossible to go beyond the 53 pilot districts. Universal maternity entitlements of Rs 6,000 per child, a very modest and outdated norm, would require an annual allocation of Rs 15,000 crore at the very least.
The nation is paying a heavy price for this violation of the Act. Maternity entitlements are essential to address India’s staggering problem of low birth weights, poor maternal health and severe hardship during pregnancy. Ensuring rest for the mother after delivery, six months of exclusive breastfeeding and appropriate care for the child needs a number of supportive measures including maternity entitlements.
Maternity entitlements are required not just to improve maternal and child health but also in recognition of women as workers. Further, for child safety and support to parents, appropriate arrangements for crèches need to be made. What is in fact required is a comprehensive legislation ensuring unconditional maternity entitlements of at least minimum wages and child care for all children, in place of the current Maternity Benefits Act. Implementing the universal maternity entitlements under the NFSA would be a useful first step towards the goal of ensuring the right to maternity entitlements and child care services for all.
We urge you to recognise this lapse, abide by the law, and ensure that universal maternity entitlements are provided for without delay.
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